Jean Mouton (c.1459–1522)
[Royal Ms from the motet Celeste beneficium, British Library]
Mouton is first reliably heard of as a singer in the church of Notre Dame in Nesle, near Amiens, in 1477. He was Maître de Chapelle there by 1483 and also a priest, which meant he was at least 25, hence his surmised birth date of 1459. In 1501, he became director of music in the church of St André in Grenoble. King Louis XII and his wife Queen Anne visited there the following year, and seem to have taken Mouton off with them, as his appointment in Grenoble abruptly ended.
He remained at the royal court for the rest of his life, joining the Queen’s chapel in the 1500’s, and writing a motet on her death in 1514. He wrote music for private and public royal occasions, including a motet for Louis’ second wife on their marriage, and then after Louis’ death, for the coronation of François I in 1515. In that same year Pope Leo X heard his music and became an admirer, at some point making Mouton an Apostolic notary.
Mouton’s fame spread. He was among the first composers to have an entire volume of his music published, by a pioneer of music printing, Petrucci, who issued a book of his Masses in 1515. Another important collection of his music is a compilation of his motets issued in 1555, decades after his death. A large proportion of his works has survived, numbering over 100 motets, 15 masses, and more than 20 chansons; his most often performed work is the motet Nesciens Mater, the recording above . Another of his legacies was as the teacher of Adrian Willaert, who himself became a teacher in the Franco-Netherlands style, and exerted great influence on Italian music of the period, with appointments in Rome, Milan and Venice.
What to listen for: Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Mouton's music is his canonic writing. This is where exactly the same music is sung by two (or more) separate voices, usually a short time apart, and sometimes at a different pitch. The challenge of this compositional technique is to write a line (or more) of music that will fit together with itself when it is sung by two (staggered) voices simultaneously. Mouton was a master of this technique, as can be clearly observed in the video above. His Nesciens Mater is a quadruple canon, where the same four lines of music are sung by two four-part choirs, but astonishingly, the second of these choirs begins the music two bars later, and a perfect fifth higher - and it all fits together seamlessly.
Mouton died and was buried in 1522 in what is now the Basilica of St Quentin; the tombstone no longer exists, but the inscription that was on it is known:
CI GIST MAISTRE JEAN DE HOLLINGUE, DIT MOUTON, EN SON VIVANT CHANTRE DU ROY CHANOINE DE THEROUANNE ET DE CETTE EGLISE QUI TRESPASSA LE PENULTIEME JOUR D'OCTOBRE MDXXII. PRIEZ DIEU POUR SON AME
Here lies Master Jean de Hollingue, called Mouton, in his lifetime singer for the King, Canon of Therouanne and of this church, who died on the penultimate day of October 1522. Pray to God for his soul.
Article "Jean Mouton," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980